Panther men’s basketball opens strong with tourney win

MIDDLEBURY — Senior guard Jack Daly agreed on Saturday after the Middlebury College men’s basketball team won the Panthers’ own season-opening tournament that the Panthers have a different look without graduated all-star guards Matt St. Amour and Jake Brown.
But Daly said things might not be that different, even with the loss of two players he called “two of the best players in the program’s history.”
Daly, the weekend’s tournament MVP, pointed out that among those also returning are senior forwards Nick Tarantino and Adisa Majors, junior forward Eric McCord, and sophomore forward Matt Folger, who last winter played major roles as the Panthers won the NESCAC title and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division III tournament. 
And, Daly added, there are young players ready to step in, several of who showed well this weekend, including freshman starting guard Jack Farrell, and two guards off the bench, sophomore Joey Leighton and freshman Max Bosco.
“Everyone sleeps on the fact that we have five players who played in the Elite Eight. And we have the best four bigs in the NESCAC,” Daly said. “It’s going to open up a lot more opportunity for players to step up, take more shots. So everyone’s ready for the occasion. It’s great. Everyone’s fearless.”
Coach Jeff Brown, whose team earned a preseason No. 8 ranking courtesy of its finish last season, was pleased with the play of both his veterans and newcomers this weekend. On Saturday the Panthers ground out a 74-58 win over competitive Wentworth Institute in the final, and on Friday they raced to a 62-27 halftime lead in 111-72 victory over rebuilding Fitchburg State.
“We’re still trying to figure out our team to a degree early in the season,” Brown said. “But we like the parts, and the chemistry of the group is really strong. They like to play with each other and share the ball on offense. So I’m really pleased this early in the year to be playing at this level.”
On Saturday, Wentworth (2-1) showed patience on offense and discipline on defense in denying the Panther fast break. 
With 8:31 to go in the first half the game was tied at 16-16 despite a four-point play by Bosco, who nailed a transition three on a feed from Leighton, was fouled and hit the free throw. But shortly afterward Wentworth’s Ben Kizel nailed back-to-back threes to tie the game.
The Panthers took the lead for good at 6:54 on a Folger three that triggered an 18-6 run. Tarantino hit a jumper and then stole the ball to set up a Folger trey. Junior guard Hilal Dahleh sank two free throws at 4:42, Daly stole the ball and went in for a three-point play at 3:56 to make it 29-20, Folger (15 points, nine rebounds, three blocks) hit another jumper and one of two free throws before Majors (14 points, seven boards) capped it with a putback that made it 34-22.
Points by Wentworth forward Stephen Azums (19 points and a game-high 12 boards) and Jason Ganley (19 points) kept their team within 10 at the break, 38-28.
Wentworth came no closer than seven after the break.  A Matt Vartanian jumper pulled Wentworth to within 48-41, but the Panthers answered with a 7-0 run, a Folger jumper and Folger and Bosco transition hoops assisted by Leighton. Wentworth Coach Arlen Galloway, a former Panther assistant, then called for time at 10:55.
Wentworth made one more run: A Cesar Fulcar three and a Ganley jumper made it 61-54 at 4:42. But Daly was in the middle of scoring 12 straight Panther points. When Daly responded to Ganley’s jumper with a three and a drive it was 66-54 at 3:35, and the Panthers coasted home.
Brown credited Wentworth’s defense, and singled out Daly, who scored a career-high 25 while adding six rebounds and six assists.
“They were very organized in transition and got back, and we didn’t get many easy scores until Jack Daly took over at the end,” Brown said.
At the same time the Panther defense held Wentworth to 36.2 percent from the floor.
“I thought it was a tremendous effort,” Brown said. “Our guys executed the game plan very well on the defensive end.”
Daly said the Panthers defensive effort was no accident.
“Coach has emphasized from the first day of practice that the way we’re going to beat teams this year is on the defensive end,” Daly said. “We worked a lot in the fall on our defensive rotations.”
On Friday Daly led the way with 10 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists, believed to be the program’s first triple-double.
Folger scored 17 points, McCord had 15 in 13 minutes, Leighton finished with a career-high 14, Max Bosco debuted with 10, Farrell debuted with nine and four assists, Majors chipped in eight points and eight boards, and Perry DeLorenzo added eight points.
Middlebury went on first-half runs of 17-0 and 13-0 on the way to its 62-27 lead at the break. 
Jerrell Gomes led Fitchburg State with 16 points and five assists.
Middlebury led by 54-37 on the boards and shot 37 for 66 from the floor, with 27 assists, and held Fitchburg to 34.2 percent shooting.
Daly said Wentworth made life harder for the Panther offense the next day, but put it in perspective.  
“You saw last night we’re more than capable of putting up 100 points. Today we played a better defensive team that slowed us down a bit, but that didn’t stop us,” Daly said. “We still scored about 80 points. For most teams that’s a pretty high-scoring game.”
Brown said the Panthers still have work to do, but he has no complaints.
“We have to make steps on both sides of the ball in terms of consistency, but there are just a lot of good early signs with the guys just working together and being positive,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun to coach this year’s team.”

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